In The Netherlands, which takes its welfare-state benefits seriously, a conscientious civil servant in the village of Diepenveen (pop. 4,018) decided to go out and inform a local farm hand named Hendrik Bally in person that the government, now that he had turned 65, would henceforth pay him a pension of 81 guilders ($21.31) a month.
The civil servant found a man dressed in unspeakable rags, and so thin that his ribs seemed about to burst out of his skin. His boss, Farmer Abraham Kolkman, 72, curtly explained that Bally was nearly deaf and blind, volunteered to sign the pension papers himself. Then suddenly Bally spoke up to contradict his master for the first time in 50 long years. "I can sign my name," he said. "It's my money." And that very night he ran away.
Last week, dressed in the first pair of pajamas he had ever had and wearing a new hearing aid and spectacles that the old folks' home had given him, Bally told reporters his eerie story. Back in 1910, Bally, a 15-year-old orphan, was shipped off to Farmer Kolkman's place to work for a bed in the attic and 2.50 guilders (65¢) a week. In those days the guilder went far, and young Bally never complained. By the time the first World War broke out, he was too deaf to be called up, and since his eyesight had also begun to fail, he soon stopped keeping track of the war news. He learned about World War II only because Farmer Kolkman docked him an extra 50 Dutch cents for the higher price of tobacco and he learned about peace when the surcharge ended.
Still at his 1910 wage of 65¢ a week, Bally never got a day off, nor was he ever allowed to go into town six miles away.
When the master's retarded son got married and then had a baby, the family decided to cut down on Bally's rations to even out the family budget. Occasionally a neighbor would see Bally scrounging around in the garbage. Still, Bally had one great pleasurehis Bible, which he could read whenever Madame Kolkman, as a mark of special favor, allowed him to use her glasses.
On the night he ran away, Farmer Kolkman had decided to punish Bally for his impertinence in front of the government man by withholding Madame Kolkman's glasses indefinitely. After 50 years, this was too much for Bally to bear.
When the newspapers spread Bally's story, Farmer Kolkman could not understand the fuss. "Hendrik never asked for a raise," he said. "He had his Sunday suit, and every morning we gave him an egg. He didn't want any more." As for Bally himself, now that he had glasses of his own, he had taken a look at newspapers again, and could not find much of interest in them. "It's like the old days," he said. "They still quarrel."